Mining companies led by Coal India Ltd are the biggest consumers of ammonium nitrate, the chemical compound behind the August 4 blast in Lebanon’s Beirut Port that wiped out more than half the city, killing over 150 people, leaving thousands injured and homeless and toppled that country’s government.

Ammonium nitrate is imported in bulk and in large quantities through Central government-run Visakhapatnam Port Trust by some 15 explosive manufacturers located in the eastern states including the mineral belts of Orissa and Bihar. The chemical is used to manufacture explosives that are in turn sold to miners who use it for blasting during mining operations.

“The biggest customer and consumer of explosives made of ammonium nitrate is Coal India Ltd,” a port industry executive said.

Miners source explosives from manufacturers holding permits from Petroleum and Explosives Safety Organisation (PESO), to import the chemical.

Regulatory body PESO

PESO is a regulatory agency attached to the Department for Promotion of Industry and Internal Trade under the Ministry of Commerce and Industries, to administer Explosives Act 1884, Petroleum Act 1934, Inflammable Substances Act 1952, Ammonium Nitrate Rules 2012 and Environment Protection Act 1986, among others, for controlling import, export, transport, storage and usage of explosive materials, flammable materials, pressure vessels, cryogenic vessels, design and installation of all necessary and relevant infrastructure.

The Central government has tightened the import, storage, transport and manufacture of explosives using the chemical by notifying the Ammonium Nitrate Rules, 2012 in the gazette on July 11, 2012, both for safety reasons as well as to ensure that it does not get into wrongful hands.

Ammonium nitrate can be imported, handled and stored in a warehouse only by entities holding permits from PESO. Unlike other cargo, the chemical can only be imported though ports such as Visakhapatnam that are approved and notified by the Shipping Ministry.

GPS tracking

When the ship carrying the chemical reaches Vizag port, it is unloaded from the vessel according to rules framed in this regard. A fire tender is stationed on the wharf (berth) when the cargo is discharged from the vessel.

From the port to the warehouse, the cargo is tracked using GPS fitted on the vehicles. Trucks carrying the chemical from the warehouse to the explosive manufacturing factories located hundreds of kilometres away from Vizag are also GPS-enabled for on-line monitoring of trucks by the authorities.

The government made GPS compulsory on trucks after some vehicles carrying ammonium nitrate were hijacked on the way to explosive manufacturing factories a few years ago, the port industry official said.

The ammonium nitrate is allowed to be imported by licensed entities preferably in bagged form and when imported in bulk, it should be bagged or packed suitably by the cargo handling agent.

The chemical imported into India by sea cannot be stored in the port, according to the Ammonium Nitrate Rules 2012. Upon unloading from the ship, the chemical should be immediately shifted from the port to the stevedores’ licensed storehouse which should not be located in populated areas. It can be dispatched from the storehouse only in bagged form.

The ammonium nitrate storehouse should be surrounded by a wall of at least 2 metre height of such strength and construction to prevent any unauthorised entry.

The vehicles carrying the chemical should be accompanied by two able bodied guards. If the consignment is passing through sensitive areas notified by the Home Ministry, it should be escorted by armed police escort or guard provided by the district police administration.

The transport of the chemical in sensitive areas notified by the Home Ministry is also not allowed between the hours of sunset and sunrise.